Revisiting The Merits Of Merit Pay

Al Shanker was very concerned about the need to identify and replace incompetent teachers. The first time he wrote a column about it, his wife was one of the many people who warned him that the union’s teachers would be up in arms (see here). Shanker wasn’t worried, replying that "All of my members will read that, and they’ll all agree, because not one of them will think that they are one of the bad teachers that I’m talking about."

He was right. Most of the members were very supportive, probably for a variety of reasons. First, most teachers take their responsibilities as teachers very seriously, thus favoring the establishment and enforcement of high standards of professional practice. Second, teachers who don’t believe themselves to be effective are more likely to leave the profession – see here. And third, we know from research that most of us just believe that we are simply better than most other people. Psychologists describe this "illusory superiority" or "above average" effect as the tendency to make self-serving comparisons between oneself and others, with the consequence that an overwhelming majority of people judge themselves to be "better than average" on a variety of traits, skills, and socially desirable dimensions ( here and here).

Nevertheless, there are many teachers who support the idea of performance pay, even if they're wary of the details of how "merit" is defined (specifically, whether or not it includes test scores).

Now, it’s no secret that I think merit pay for teachers is of limited practical utility. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand why, evidence aside, some people (including teachers) might find the policy to be attractive. These are my thoughts on the issue:

First, the notion of performance-based compensation seems to appeal to rationality and common sense: If people work for money, they should work even harder for more money. The logic, of course, begins to break down when it is applied broadly to transactions that are about more than just money. For example, do we think that someone who is paid to be creative would necessarily be more creative if they are paid more? In the case of teaching, we know that money is rarely the prime motivation for either entering or leaving the profession. For example, research shows that teacher mobility is much more strongly related to characteristics of the students (e.g. race, achievement) than to salary. Also, recent work investigating the role of workplace conditions concluded that factors known to cause stress significantly affect teacher turnover especially among novice teachers. So why the assumption that money is the best lever to improve practice?

Second, the "Lake Woebegone effect" that I described above. Although we know that it is a statistical impossibility for everyone to be above average, the great majority of us believe that we are better than most. We think that we drive better (see here), are more fair (here) and have better health prospects than the average person (here). Given this well-documented tendency to overestimate where we stand relative to others, many will of course favor a system that differentiates "the best" from "the average" and rewards each group accordingly.

The third factor stems from the way that teachers are portrayed in the media. Of late, both teachers and the general public agree that the "bad teacher" narrative has become ubiquitous. This may have exacerbated teachers’ need to preserve their self-image by differentiating themselves from those other "bad teachers." In this light, performance pay is not so much a reward scheme but a mechanism for differentiation.

Nobody wants to be average, especially in education when the term is often used to signal not just mediocrity but inferiority. Average teachers – that is, teachers who do their jobs competently and with whom children learn what they are supposed to learn, but not more – have come to be viewed as somehow substandard. Thus, teachers’ increasing support for merit pay may have as much to do with social-psychological factors as with a real desire to receive bonuses based on students’ test score gains. Although few people aspire to be "just like everyone else", average is indeed a statistical reality.

- Esther Quintero